Just before Labor Day of this year, the Walters Art Museum’s executive director, Julia Marciari-Alexander, sent an email to staff, the public, and the press admonishing the museum’s unionizing workers for not “taking the necessary steps within their control in order to proceed to a union vote.” She reiterated her previous comments that leadership “support[s] our employees’ right to consider unionization” and that the process must be decided through an election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board.
Since publicly announcing their union in April 2021, however, Walters Workers United have clearly stated that they are open to an election if the museum chooses not to voluntarily recognize them. (If voluntarily recognized by management, or formally elected by a majority of voting members, WWU would be affiliated with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees [AFSCME] Council 67, which also represents newly unionized workers at the Baltimore Museum of Art.) The museum administration has not voluntarily recognized the union, and members of WWU say that Marciari-Alexander has repeatedly refused to meet with them to discuss any alternative potential paths toward recognition.
In effect, each side has accused the other of stalling the process by which workers could hold a formal union election. What, then, is the holdup? The conflict is bound up in particularities of process and deflective rhetoric.
Walters leadership insists that all WWU and AFSCME have to do is file an election petition with the NLRB, which oversees labor relations in the private sector, with some exceptions. But WWU and AFSCME argue that the Walters Art Museum is a public institution and, legally, an instrumentality of the government, which would mean the NLRB does not have jurisdiction. Moreover, the union says, going through the NLRB would likely split their wall-to-wall union into two units, with gallery officers separated from the rest of their colleagues due to an old provision of the National Labor Relations Act which excludes security guards. This is why the union has proposed other methods to certify that they have majority support from eligible members, such as a card check, or a secret ballot election overseen by a mutually agreed-upon third party.
The Walters has continually refused to discuss labor relations with the workers, and it has ignored letters from Mayor Brandon Scott, Comptroller Bill Henry, and the Baltimore City Council urging the museum administration to meet with workers. In public remarks, Marciari-Alexander has suggested that having such a meeting would amount to showing partiality or interfering in the outcome of a vote.
After being at loggerheads over these issues for the past 17 months, AFSCME filed a lawsuit on Sept. 12 against the museum on behalf of Walters Workers United. In May 2022, AFSCME and WWU submitted multiple requests under the Maryland Public Information Act seeking communications about the union from Marciari-Alexander, minutes from Board of Trustees meetings over the last year, contracts between the museum and its law firm Shawe Rosenthal, and tax documents and filings, among other items. Marciari-Alexander wrote in response to those requests that “The Walters Art Museum is not subject to the MPIA,” and added that its most recent financial statements and 990s are publicly available.
In response to questions from The Real News Network about the lawsuit and about alternatives to the NLRB process, a spokeswoman for the Walters Art Museum said, “We have been made aware of a potential legal action and will engage in the legal process as appropriate.”
The lawsuit, filed in Baltimore’s Circuit Court, cites numerous recent and historical documents to argue that the Walters is a public institution subject to the MPIA. The union hopes that the court will agree and order the museum to produce all of the documents.
“This is particularly a concern because we as workers have no insight into what our Board of Trustees discusses, or how it conducts business,” said Gregory Bailey, a WWU organizer and objects conservator at the Walters, in an interview with TRNN. “We have no access to minutes or agendas; we really don’t understand how our own leadership has been discussing this process or what steps they have taken. In their silence and their refusal to meet with us, this request for public information is really so that we can understand where we are in the process, and so our leadership can also be transparent and accountable to us about the steps that they are taking to either facilitate or prevent the union election.”
In the lawsuit, AFSCME argues that there’s abundant proof that the Walters is an entity of Maryland and Baltimore City. In his last will and testament, Henry Walters gave his art collection, two buildings, and an endowment to the City of Baltimore, which formally established the museum in 1934 to steward these bequests. Presently, the museum is tax exempt “as an instrumentality of the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore”; it receives city funding for operating costs; and its employees receive benefits through the city. Over many years, the Walters has received public funding for expansions and improvements. For the plaintiffs, these and other facts demonstrate that “The Walters was established as a public entity, receives public funding, is operated for the public’s benefit, and is subject to the public’s control.”
In an interview with TRNN, AFSCME organizers said that the question of whether the Walters is a private or a public institution is ultimately beside the point. Regardless of its designation, organizers maintain, the museum could at any time recognize the union voluntarily, agree to a card check, or agree to an election overseen by a neutral third party. A lawyer for AFSCME affirmed that there’s no legal reason for the institution to push workers to go through the NLRB.
The third-party election is the process that the nearby Baltimore Museum of Art eventually chose after its staff unionized last November. According to Maggie Robbins, a union member who works in exhibitions design at the BMA, museum leadership was open to conversations about which direction to take from the start. “They stated from the get-go that they had an open-door policy on this topic,” Robbins said. The union met with then-Director Chris Bedford and then-Chief Financial Officer Chris Dietz to share why it was important for them to have a wall-to-wall union. Robbins said that leadership initially wanted them to go through Baltimore City and the NLRB for an election, but workers maintained that they wouldn’t agree to a process that excluded security guards, who are some of the museum’s lowest-paid workers.
Bedford had spent the last six years at the BMA building up its image as an inclusive and equitable institution, from the art it collects and exhibits to the visitors it welcomes, to the staff it employs. About half a year after workers announced the union—and just a few weeks before Bedford would leave the BMA to become SFMOMA’s new director—leadership agreed with the union on a third-party arbitration election agreement through the American Arbitration Association. On July 14, BMA staff finally got their election, and they overwhelmingly voted to unionize, 89 “Yes” to 29 “No.”
Over the last year and a half, the Walters has laid off or lost staff who have gone to other jobs and other institutions. “A lot of people have gone to the BMA and other cultural institutions, people who’ve been here for really a lot of time,” said Bailey. Rehiring for vacant positions is slow, he added, and extra work falls on those who are still there.
Lex Reehill, who has worked at the Walters for six years, told TRNN that he wants to make a sustainable career from his job. As a gallery officer, Reehill is part of the group that could be negatively affected by an NLRB election. Because of the institution’s insistence on going through the NLRB, he said, “it really just feels like I am replaceable, or I am an unskilled laborer. And I can just speak for anybody at the Walters: there’s no unskilled labor anywhere in the museum. All of us are highly trained professionals, and we care a lot about what we do. And I just wish management and leadership would treat us with the same respect that we’re treating the collection every day.”
Despite staff turnover, organizers say there is still a majority in favor of a union. Gallery officer Garrett Stralnic told TRNN that staff recently sent a signed letter to leadership saying that they want to have an election through a third party in order to maintain a single unit. Rachel Leeds, who works in visitor services, said that all they’re asking for right now is an election option that won’t split them up. Leeds has interacted with workers who are uncomfortable with signing cards, who might not vote, or who might vote “No,” but, she noted, “I have not met a single person who has not wanted a vote for a wall-to-wall union.”
Workers are frustrated by Marciari-Alexander’s emails about the union—the ones that go out to the public as well as those that remain internal. “In a lot of the emails that we get, it accuses us of not taking action, and not doing what we’re supposed to do,” said Leeds. “We’re not doing the exact action that they prescribe, but we’re trying to be open, and we’re trying to start that conversation with people.”
Marciari-Alexander’s emails typically emphasize the institution’s position of neutrality and its desire not to influence the democratic process of voting; the messages also typically note that many employees have said they don’t want a union. But the vote itself is the democratic process, not the method through which they vote. “They would have the same voice to vote ‘No’ in the [non-NLRB] election,” said Jordan Robinson, a gallery officer.
Several workers have emailed board members directly with their concerns and have received similar responses along the lines of “Thank you for your perspective, we’ll be forwarding this to museum leadership.” But they want to have actual conversations. “Just from my own perspective, if the board members have concerns about the union, or they want to talk, if we could have open dialogue, that would be wonderful,” Leeds said. “I want to know what everyone’s thinking, I want to know exactly what their concerns would be so we could work it out.”
Stralnic told TRNN that some organizers have tried calling board members and were told that it was “inappropriate” for them to do so. “The only way to get items on the board’s agenda is by having the secretary of the board place those agenda items. And [Marciari-Alexander] is the secretary,” Stralnic said.
The process does not need to be this contentious. As Bailey noted, staff, leadership, and the board have worked closely toward common goals as recently as 2021 through a “joint working group” (JWG) to improve diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion at the museum. “We have all worked together to make meaningful change at the museum. We know that it can work,” Bailey said. (After workers announced their union, Board Chair James H. DeGraffenreidt Jr. emailed JWG members saying that the group’s work would halt. “I know that many employees are interested in changing the ways that employees engage in meaningful dialogue with management and effect change in the museum. In deference to those employees, the work of the JWG will remain suspended until those issues are resolved,” he wrote.)
The Walters has worked hard to promote its updated DEAI plan and to be more transparent about its founders’ connection to the Confederacy, receiving much press attention for these acts, along with its earlier decision to raise the pay floor for employees. Part of the WWU organizers’ aim is to take the museum to task for the disparity between what it has publicly said and promised regarding transparency, equity, inclusion, accessibility, and diversity, and how it has handled the union drive.
Pushing WWU and AFSCME to file through the NLRB, organizers suggest, is counter to those DEAI goals. “As it happens, security is where a majority of the people of color end up. So it’s going to disproportionately affect security, which means it’ll disproportionately affect people of color,” said Robinson, who has worked in that department for the last three years. “After all this, the whole stink about ‘We’re here for [the] city, we’re here for Black people’ after the  protests… They say all these nice words and stuff, but they won’t put the tangible efforts in to keep us together where it would benefit the people that need it most.”
A year and a half in, workers are still committed to unionizing—and to their day-to-day work at the museum. They’re playing the long game, considering the museum’s future and longevity as they seek to create a more stable workforce and a more stable workplace. “For me, this isn’t even so much about us in this moment right now,” said Bailey. “We’re working to do what we feel is right to build permanent, democratic, representative forces for workers to have a voice in their working lives. The museum has been here 85 years. If it takes us a while to get this right, we’re going to do it right, because what we’re building is the future.”